The Monitor's monthly guide to fiction bestsellers

1. Skipping Christmas

by John Grisham, Doubleday, $19.95

To show us what can happen if you walk away from the chaotic frenzy that has become the Christmas season, Grisham tells a story of a couple who attempts to do just that. With their only daughter off in the Peace Corps, they decide to save their sanity and take a cruise. But their neighbors, the shop owners, the firemen, the policemen, and even the Boy Scouts don't seem to understand. It's a very short story that seems to go on and on. This is a lump of literary coal in the Christmas stocking. (178 pp.) By Anne Toevs

The Christian Science Monitor: unfavorable

The New York Times: no review noted

Kirkus Review of Books: no review noted

Selected reviews (National Post): unfavorable

Audio available

2. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, Farrar Strauss & Giroux, $26

Bristling with energy and erudition, this omnivorous comedy about a midwestern family dealing with chronic dysfunctions radiates with dark insight. The Lamberts are a Norman Rockwell portrait in acidic hues. While the retired patriarch wrestles with Parkinson's disease, his wife throws herself into one last Christmas at home with their three adult children - each a facet of personal failure. A wonderful sendup of biotech hype, Wall Street hucksterism, and consumer anxiety. (576 pp.) (Full review Sept. 13) By Ron Charles

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: favorable

Kirkus Review of Books: favorable

Selected reviews (The Guardian): unfavorable

Audio available

3. The Best Loved Poems of Jackie Onassis, by Caroline Kennedy, Hyperion, $21.95

Jacqueline Kennedy loved poetry, and she shared that love with her children. Now, Caroline is sharing her mom's favorite poems and her own fond memories of reading poetry as a child. The poems are lovely, if a bit predictable. Most can be found in any basic literature text. But the book comes alive with Caroline's warm essays at the beginning of each section, giving readers a sense of what poetry meant to her family, and showing why poetry might become a treasured part of your family activities. (192 pp.) By Elizabeth Lund

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: no review noted

Kirkus Review of Books: no review noted

Selected reviews (): no review noted

Audio available

4. Last Man Standing, by David Baldacci, Warner, $26.95

FBI agent Web London is filled with self-doubt and the desire for revenge after an ambush kills six colleagues in the super-elite Hostage Rescue Team. Web goes to an alluring psychiatrist to understand why he froze and survived the shooting. He also heads to Washington's mean streets to figure out who set him up. This thriller combines new elements - OxyContin trafficking and cell phone calls - with the tried-and-true descriptions of weaponry, untrustworthy FBI higher-ups, and snappy dialogue. (464 pp.) By Joel Abrams

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: no review noted

Kirkus Review of Books: no review noted

Selected reviews (Denver Post): mixed

Audio available

5. Violets Are Blue, by James Patterson, Little Brown, $27.95

James Patterson compels his readers to enter his web of confusion and terror. He succeeds in getting them quickly striving to untangle the diabolical murders found in his story of young serial killers committing murders in a sacrificial, vampire style. The violence and deranged sex at times seem far too real. And it's more than a little disturbing that the youths, although committing these murders at the command of their leader, seem to enjoy what they're doing. (400 pp.) By Shelley Ellington

The Christian Science Monitor: unfavorable

The New York Times: no review noted

Kirkus Review of Books: unfavorable

Selected reviews (Globe and Mail): favorable

Audio available

6. The Fiery Cross, by Diana Gabaldon, Delacorte, $27.95

This fifth installment in the Outlander series brings accidental time traveler Claire Randall and her 18th-century Scottish husband to colonial North Carolina. They must defend their love and their daughter (a new mother and even newer wife) from the chaos of the coming revolution and a villain from her past. Scenes of sex, mystery, and frequent attention to personal biology accumulate without building tension. The central romances are secure from the outset and too sugary to affect deeply. (976 pp.) By Tim Rauschenberger

The Christian Science Monitor: unfavorable

The New York Times: no review noted

Kirkus Review of Books: no review noted

Selected reviews (Toronto Star): favorable

Audio available

7. Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger, Atlantic Monthly, $24

Enger's first novel is a rich mixture of adventure, tragedy, and healing. The humble Land family lives in a small Minnesota town in the early 1960s. The father works as a janitor, but he also performs miraculous deeds. When Rubin, the asthmatic narrator, is 11, his strong-willed older brother kills a pair of cruel bullies and runs from the law. Guided only by their father's prayers, the family sets out to find him. Enger has written a novel that's boldly romantic and unabashedly appealing. (313 pp.) (Full review Sept. 6) By Ron Charles

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: unfavorable

Kirkus Review of Books: favorable

Selected reviews (Globe and Mail): mixed

Audio available

8. The Mitford Snowmen, by Jan Karon, Viking, $10.95

This is a short story, as well as a Hallmark-product tie-in disguised as a book. Still, Jan Karon's legions of fans are likely to snap up the brief vignette for a stocking stuffer that's as light and sweet as cotton candy. On a snowy day, all the familiar residents of Mitford, North Carolina, from Father Tim to Mule Skinner, end up on Main Street in a snowman-building contest. How will big-hearted Mayor Esther Cunningham decide the winner? The answer is as warm as it is expected. (32 pp.) By Judy Lowe

The Christian Science Monitor: mixed

The New York Times: no review noted

Kirkus Review of Books: no review noted

Selected reviews (USA Today): mixed

Audio available

9. Falling Angels, by Tracy Chevalier, Dutton, $24.95

Two families meet in the early 1900s while visiting their plots in a London cemetery, where most of this charmless story takes place. The two wives have nothing in common and rarely meet again, but their young daughters become fast friends. Their favorite activity is playing among the graves, while one of the mothers pursues an affair with the cemetery manager. Fans of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" won't enjoy this novel's clunky satire of grief or its ridicule of the early women's movement. (309 pp.) (Full review Oct. 18) By Ron Charles

The Christian Science Monitor: unfavorable

The New York Times: unfavorable

Kirkus Review of Books: mixed

Selected reviews (Boston Globe): favorable

Audio available

10. Portrait in Sepia, by Isabel Allende, HarperCollins, $26

The portrait in question is a family one - that of a 19th-century San Francisco girl whose relatives are blended in an unusual way. Most compelling are her grandparents: her grandmother, a Chilean whose appetite was matched only by her business acumen, and her grandfather, a respected Chinese healer. The plot twists are hardly surprising, but Allende writes with so much love for her characters and depth of history that the result is a page-turner as gripping as any mystery. (320 pp.) By Yvonne Zipp

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: mixed

Kirkus Review of Books: favorable

Selected reviews (Washington Post): favorable

Audio available

11. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro, Knopf, $24

The stories in this subtle, intimate collection move back and forth through time to paint a picture of each life: a cancer patient who discovers a "swish of tender hilarity," a woman who cherishes the memory of a long-ago fling, a wife thinking about the complexities that led to her husband's suicide. Marriage, loss, and an individual's quiet and sometimes unrealized yearnings are a frequent theme. The emotions Munro explores are complex, but always ring true. (320 pp.) By Amanda Paulson

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: favorable

Kirkus Review of Books: no review noted

Selected reviews (Star Ledger): favorable

12. Half a Life, by V.S. Naipaul, Knopf, $24

Willie is a young Indian man searching for identity in a world offering him dazzling variety but nothing that fits. Seeking to understand the meaning of his middle name, he discovers that his father considers him a great disappointment. In disgust, Willie runs to London to find himself in its bohemain 1950s culture. Free to present himself however he wants, he struggles to construct a self that will impress, but the social rules of this new place are just as complex as those he left behind. (224 pp.) (Full review Oct. 25) By Ron Charles

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: favorable

Kirkus Review of Books: favorable

Selected reviews (Boston Herald): favorable

13. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Sijie Dai, Alfred A. Knopf, $18

Obviously a lover of literature, Sijie Dai (himself having been reeducated from 1971-74) has created a captivating story of two boys sent to the mountains of China to be reeducated by the villagers during the ruling days of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. Sijie is at times too good at creating graphic images of intimacy and brutality, yet his words reveal a thread of light that continues to trickle through the boys' lives as their minds and hearts find ways to educate themselves. (208 pp.)

By Christy Ellington

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: mixed

Kirkus Review of Books: mixed

Selected reviews (Los Angeles Times): favorable

Audio available

14. The Sigma Protocol, by Robert Ludlum, St. Martin's, $27.95

Ben, a suave good-hearted banker, goes to Zurich for a ski vacation and winds up in the sights of an assassin - again and again. Anna is a federal agent investigating the bizarre deaths of wealthy elderly men. Ultimately, they find themselves hunting for (and hunted by) directors of a Nazi-era corporation. The characters are cutouts, but the hairpin plot twists and a global conspiracy hewing to today's headlines will satisfy even non Ludlumites. The last, and one of the best, of 23 books by the grand master of intrigue. (528 pp.) By David Clark Scott

The Christian Science Monitor: favorable

The New York Times: no review noted

Kirkus Review of Books: favorable

Selected reviews (Washington Post): mixed

15. Flesh and Blood, by Jonathan Kellerman, Random House, $26.95

By virtue of having the victim as a patient over ten years ago, psychologist Alex Delaware ends up knee-deep in solving her grisly murder investigation. Set in L.A., the story is saturated with the city's stereotypical excesses, which serve to prop up an otherwise tepid text. The twists of the investigation, while probably meant to serve as studied intrigue, come off as meandering tangents. Similarly, the characters are portrayed as a collection of attributes. Strong sexual content. (400 pp.) By Tonya Miller

The Christian Science Monitor: unfavorable

The New York Times: mixed

Kirkus Review of Books: no review noted

Selected reviews (Washington Post): favorable

Audio available

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